For the all important food, we have pre-booked the 12 course tasting menu and our company for the evening makes for a large table; we're all excited to be there. The reputation of the restaurant as a 'hot venue' to eat in London can only ever precede it now, cemented of course by gaining their own first Michelin star earlier this year.
Again, in the plus column, the staff throughout the evening were friendly, knowledgeable and did everything to facilitate us having a good time. We cannot, nor would we wish to, fault them in this respect.
We also compliment them on the wine list, or at least the choices they provided to us. Like the place itself, the wines are a little left field and walking on the uncertain territory of unknown (to us) growers, rather than bluff we let them select bottles for us. In that, they did a glorious job.
You have no doubt guessed by now that despite all the praise noted above, we have reservations, not least, our 12 course tasting menu took five hours to serve. As such, it seemed an indeterminably long period of time, enough for us to get bored between courses and for us to get bored of sitting round the table by the time hours four and five came. In fact, we can't remember any restaurant where we've been at the table for longer. Even El Bulli's 40 courses were dispensed with in four hours.
The food too, as we shall see, only occasionally hit the mark and that, simply put, has to be the biggest factor in our overall lukewarmish view of the evening. Sadly, Nuno Mendes was not there on the occasion that we visited but it's still his construction and it's not clear how much really would have been different had he been.
The amuse bouche was very good and in some ways eclipsed many of the actual main plates. Langoustine and lardo as well as 'crab doughnut' delighted, the latter providing a recognisable sweetly sugared exterior of doughnut that gives way not to jam but crab meat. If Heston's Meatfruit deception is so well regarded so should we applaud 'crab doughnut'. Before we get too excited though by this doughnut deception, we recall Noma serving similarly pork rillete filled doughnuts which itself is based on the long standing Danish delicacy of Aebleskiver. We'd also later encounter both sea buckthorn and milkskin, both Noma staples leaving us feeling that Noma's influence is very substantial in the construction of the meal.
We kept saying through the meal that 'it's interesting' and the combinations are more often than not original, but we found ourselves saying 'that works' significantly less often. Seasoning was also an issue, going from massively under seasoned to excessively salty; rarely was the balance spot on or even close.
The first real dish of impact was slow cooked salmon, braised salmon skin and fried aubergine puree finished with agedashi broth. At course number five, this was the first dish that offered full on flavours with every component adding to a dish that became greater than the sum of the parts. Everybody agreed this was the best dish so far. Sadly, the leap forward in taste could not sustain with salisfy poached in milk served on the dehydrated skin of the salsify, chicken skin, with brown butter and truffle offering another dish that was enjoyed but not raved about. It was also suggested that the dish was like an Oxo cube without salsify which is not perhaps the most flattering description.
The dish also highlighted another recurring theme, one of superfluous additions: the truffle was lost here, in our view, and added nothing to this dish. Elsewhere, we would similarly see an over layering of ingredients that gave rise to at best redundancy, and at worst, distracted from what the dish was supposed to achieve. Most dishes seemed overly fussy and would have benefited from subtraction, not addition. The cliché 'less is more' captures the idea.
The lobster and potato with confit egg yolk was also another winner dish though was so long in coming to the table, we didn't take a picture as we had forgotten we were bloggers (we were just your average hungry bored person by then). The lobster was brilliantly cooked and showed that real talent was operating here though again, the dish was too salty. Despite this, the dish was universally enjoyed. After this peak of joy, under-seasoned sea bass brought us back down. The texture was good with the toasted breadcrumbs but it remained somewhat bland. The Sao Jorge cheese was we felt also a strange pairing with fish.
What's more, there's been no real 'hot' food. The squab is little more than room temperature, the venison sliced carpaccio thin and cold, while preceding plates are occasionally warm but no more. The absence of a single hot dish across ten courses leaves not only a sense of 'box unticked' but also leaves you feeling a little short changed. Four hours in, we are also beginning to feel quite listless.
A twelve course tasting menu is highly ambitious and here, it is too ambitious. We felt there were three to four really good dishes: the langoustine, the salmon, the lobster and the yoghurt sorbet but that wasn't enough to sustain the meal overall. Whether it's the aforementioned idea of 'less is more' or the scientific principle of Occam's razor, the message around overworking an idea has been for centuries all too clear. Despite the theory, in practice it is so often all too hard to apply, and here, Viajante overworks the menu to it's own detriment. How much better would it have been if the kitchen had taken the 12 course menu, asked which six plates are weakest and struck them from the menu?
There were a few (too few sadly) great plates here, but there were also too many that did nothing for us. If Mendes has greater ambitions than the first Michelin star awarded back in January, it is our view that he'll have difficulties in realising those without a fundamental shift in his philosophy. Offering only tasting menus is a move that is seldom seen outside a small handful of the best restaurants in the world. The restaurants in that group for the most part do have something to showcase to the world, and to eat at El Bulli, The Fat Duck and Noma moves forward your understanding and experience of food. In many ways, we feel Viajante is running before it walks. Whether this ultimately results in an unrecoverable stumble, only time will tell, yet we all left somewhat deflated. It's not quite up there with discovering Father Christmas doesn't really exist, but in our view, Viajante falls well short of the hype.
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